Wine country is Will Power country
SONOMA, Calif. -- You would be forgiven for thinking that Sonoma Raceway is Will Power's personal playground.
The Australian driver has dominated the action in California wine country almost every time the Verizon IndyCar Series has visited the region. Power has won three of the past four IndyCar races at the undulating road course, and he finished second in the other Sonoma start.
Sonoma hasn't all been fun and games for the Team Penske driver. He suffered a DNF in 2008 for KV Racing after qualifying third; a year later, his initial part-time 2009 season with Penske came to a painful end when he suffered a broken back after hitting a stalled car during a practice session.
That unpleasant memory aside, Sonoma has truly been a dream destination for the man from Toowoomba. A similar result to the past four years in Sunday's GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma likely will put Power in position to easily clinch his first IndyCar Series championship when the season wraps up Aug. 30 in Fontana, California.
Power, not surprisingly, is downplaying the championship -- and his success at Sonoma.
"The way the series is now, I'm not sure anyone has an advantage anywhere," he said. "It seems to change every year. But definitely, Sonoma is a track that I really enjoy. It's very technical, and, yeah, I definitely look forward to racing there. It's a place where you have to really hit your marks and be precise. For whatever reason, that fits my driving style perfectly. Plus I've been fortunate to drive really good cars while at Team Penske. That always helps.
"We're going for wins, man," he added. "That's what got us here and that's what will keep us in the points lead."
That lead got a lot more comfortable after the most recent IndyCar Series race, at the Milwaukee Mile, where Power took a commanding victory as his closest championship challengers all struggled.
While Power was leading 228 of 250 laps on the way to his first career IndyCar race win on a short oval, Simon Pagenaud finished ninth, Helio Castroneves 11th and Ryan Hunter-Reay failed to finish at all.
That left Power with a 39-point advantage over Penske teammate Castroneves, with Pagenaud (minus-92) the only other driver within 100 points.
Thanks to the double-points season finale at Auto Club Speedway, where a win is worth 100 points rather than the usual 50, Power can't actually clinch the title at Sonoma. But he can certainly put himself in an almost unassailable position heading south to Fontana for the final showdown.
"The win at Milwaukee last weekend was very gratifying, almost as much as my win at Auto Club Speedway last year, which was one of the highlights of my career," Power said. "Certainly we are in a good position going into the last two weeks of the season. We have a lot of confidence in our ability as a team at Sonoma and Auto Club Speedway, but there is still over 150 points on the table with Fontana being a double-points race. Our path is easier now, but it's by no means easy.
"Obviously, it's truly about focusing at one race at a time, almost one lap at a time, one session at a time type thing trying to get the most out of it. You're constantly learning every year."
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One different aspect to Power's pursuit of the IndyCar Series crown this year compared to his three second-place finishes from 2010 to 2012 is that after battling Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti the first two years and Andretti Autosport's Hunter-Reay in 2012, his main competition is coming from within his own team.
Aside from Castroneves ranking second in the standings, Juan Pablo Montoya is fifth in points in his return to IndyCar racing after more than a decade racing elsewhere.
"We don't really talk about the points situation," Power said. "It would be easier to race someone from another team for sure, because if it's just your teammates you obviously want to be kind of nice on the track. You don't want to be too aggressive. But if it's someone from another team you can take a bit more risk in the way you race them."
Like Power, Castroneves is in search of his first IndyCar championship in a career that dates to 1998. The Brazilian has benefited from the double points offered at 500-mile races this year to remain in title contention, but he knows he has his work cut out in the final two races of the season.
"You just have to put last weekend out of your mind, knowing that you are probably going to lose even more points at Sonoma if you hang on too long to what happened in Milwaukee," Castroneves said. "Will did exactly what he needed to do last weekend. Now we need to come out and have that same kind of maximum points weekend either this weekend or next weekend at Auto Club Speedway."
Pagenaud is in position to finish third in the IndyCar Series standings for the second year in a row, but the Frenchman and his Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports team haven't given up on the title yet.
"We're still within striking distance," Pagenaud said. "There is literally no room for error, but this team has proven over the past three years that we can perform when the stakes are high."
The double-points finale gives hope to the handful of drivers still mathematically eligible for the title, but it would take wins in both remaining races and an utter disaster for Power in order for Hunter-Reay (minus-108), Montoya (minus-114) and defending series champion Scott Dixon (minus-130) to steal the crown.
Under the old points system, Power and Castroneves would be the only drivers still with a shot.
"I know I'm a long shot at this point, but we have two good racetracks coming up for Team Penske and we are going to give it our best effort," Montoya said. "I think we have a really good shot to win this weekend at Sonoma, and it's funny to go to a track where I have won in NASCAR but haven't won an IndyCar race yet."
Whether they are a championship long shot or just a spoiler looking for a morale-boosting, late-season victory, Montoya and everyone else in the IndyCar Series field will need to be on top of their game this weekend if they have any hope of defeating the man who has put a lock on Sonoma the past four years.